The wheels lift off the tarmac and suddenly his name is not one syllable but three: Jack, now a melodic Giovanni, as it might be sung in an Italian opera. This is somewhat baffling for Jamie, who until this moment had known him as a man who kept his heritage secured in the vault of his boot-shaped soul. He might cook in Italian, curse in Italian, call his mother on Sunday and speak Italian, and yet if Jamie mentioned an Italian restaurant for dinner, he’d redirect the discussion to Chinese or Thai. If an Italian tourist asked him in struggling English for directions on the street, he’d answer in struggling English. He has American friends, at work at least. In fact, when she first met him she’d thought he was American. On his voice mail he sounds American. No Rs are rolled.
Jack is short for John, he tells people. True, but John is Gian in Italian, short for Giovanni, the name she’d discovered on his passport only this evening. This was just before they boarded their Alitalia flight, when the stewardess greeted the Italian couple before them with a “buona sera e buon viaggio,” and then proceeded to greet Jack with a “Good evening and welcome.” Vaffanculo brutta stronza non vedi che sono italiano pure io came rumbling through Jamie’s inner ear. “Buona sera signorina,” is what the stewardess then heard, in Giovanni’s very polite but make-no-mistake-about-my-identity voice. “Scusi, scusi, mi scusi,” the goddess clamored. “Nessun problema,” he assured her, and the two fell into a melodic exchange while Jamie stood there staring because she never heard Jack’s voice so natural, so content before.
After the plane levels off and they finish their first glass of business class prosecco (upgrades via Jamie’s unused, ever-growing stock of American Express points), the little fight they’d gotten into in the terminal, perhaps their first, is long forgotten. (He had insisted on holding her ticket and passport. “This may be my first trip to Italy, she’d scoffed, “but it’s not as if I’ve never flown before.” The weird thing she still can’t get over is that she’d given in and handed them to him.) Now their seats are extended far back and Jack/Giovanni is talking more than she’s ever known him to, perhaps more than she ever wanted him to, because something about the word great-grandfather makes her sleepy. Bisnonno is how they say it in Italian. “Bisnonno made a fortune in steel.”
Apparently her affliction crosses languages: she immediately yawns and her eyes fill with water––“must be that all-nighter at work,” she says, but Giovanni continues, “He bought Villa Ruffoli in the 1920s as a summer home for his extended family, a way for everyone to convene and escape the city’s suffocating heat.” In fact, I should get out my briefcase and start drafting those e-mails.
“…Bisnonno had four sons…” Something in the fervent rise and fall of his voice, more so than his words, is absorbing her subconscious. Like a dream, snippets are getting through. “…Federico ran sales out of Milan, Peter went to the war, another took over operations in Asti, and my grandfather, Nonno Giacomo, became CEO with headquarters in Torino. There were uncles and second cousins in Milano and Abruzzi, Godparents in Rome…” At one point Jamie has to tell him to go back a couple of generations, because she’s lost.
“And this is just my mother’s side…” he turns at her and smiles that taunting, alluring smile, and just like that, it’s as if he’s reached in and touched her heart. “Go on,” she tells him.
“I’m boring you.”
Gazing at their entwined hands, he continues. “There were never less than twenty people at the dinner table. Nonno Giacomo sat at the head, me, the oldest grandchild, to his right, always. It was my job to taste the wine in case it tasted like vinegar.” He looks pointedly at Jamie here. “It often tasted like vinegar.
“The meal was chaos, always a plethora of debates going on at once: which cow produced the best cheese, politics I didn’t understand, why the farmer screwed up the wine or the cook ruined the chicken; the latest scandals at the company, who was sleeping with whom. Meanwhile, Nonno Giacomo, bored by all this nonsense, entertained himself by doodling on paper napkins that he would pass to me under the table. I’d have to use all my strength not to burst out laughing at some of those sketches of Zia Maddalena’s breasts. When the meal was over, my cousin Luca would run around drinking up the dregs of wine left in glasses.”
Jack relaxes back in his seat and smiles at a thought.
Or is he frowning? She can never tell.
She orders more prosecco.
Their heads fall together.
“You’ve never tasted real milk, Jamie. There was no need to leave the property. We had cows and cattle sheds and made our own butter. Live chickens and pigs, too,” and when her eyes don’t scream with envy, “You’ve never tasted real pork, Jamie.”
“Do I want to?”
“We ate fruit right off the trees: apples, plums, cherries, hazelnuts…”
“Peaches? I love peaches.”
“You’ve never sucked on a real peach, Jamie.” And from his eyes she can see that she hasn’t.
“We had our own vineyards and made our own wine.”
They fall quiet for a time; he remembering it all, Jamie imagining him remembering it all.
“Ah, well,” he sighs, and then reaches for his La Stampa in the seat back pocket in front of him.
“Ah well what?”
He is closing back up, as he can do. “Jack?”
“It’s all gone,” he shrugs.
She clears her throat. “Everything?”
“I still can’t believe it.”
“Even the cows and the milk?”
“The peach trees?”
“Jamie, basta, enough.”
“It was a long time ago. I was away in the States at MIT.”
“You must know something.”
“That’s not an answer.”
His eyebrow goes up. “Have you ever been to Italy?”
“Really Jack, what happened?”
“There was finger pointing…accusations…the war made them rich, and when the war was over, when they had to really manage things, well, the truth came out––they were mis-managing everything. Nonno’s brothers blamed him, as CEO. Nonno blamed his sons-in-law—my father and Zio Marco—who then blamed each other. To tell you the truth, I didn’t want to know. I didn’t really care. I only felt sorry for Nonno Giacomo because he died with nothing. The vast empire of Ruffoli property was sold, and all he had left were some vines, a crumbling villa, and my mother to look after him; the villa’s surrounding land had been redeveloped into apartments, and those that weren’t sold were piece-mealed off to family members as some paltry kind of inheritance.”
He falls silent.
“And your father?”
“Napoli,” he says, after a dark moment. “He went back to Napoli.”
“So they’re divorced?”
“Nonno wrote me a poem the day I left for MIT…” he says, not so much ignoring her question as refusing to acknowledge it. His parents are Catholic, of course they’re not divorced. “…It never occurred to me until years later, after the dust had settled and I re-read the poem, how talented he was.” He pauses, as if reciting the verse in his mind, and it occurs to Jamie that Jack may have left the wedding invitation, the impulse for this trip, out for her to see on purpose.
He clears his throat of whatever emotion got caught there, and then the plane suddenly roars from below for no apparent reason. They catch and hold eyes in the moment of uncertainty. A flicker of something, fear, could he be afraid, she wonders, and in a gesture that feels apart from her, she reaches out and touches his cheek. Her fingers follow the curve of his jaw and settle on his chin. There is a tiny crevice there, a small crack or fissure, and she spends an abstract moment contemplating this little part of him. Then the roaring subsides, and her hand moves back. She stares at it a moment wondering what just happened, then clambers out of her seat to get her briefcase from the overhead compartment.
“You know what to do?” he says, at last handing her her passport when they arrive in Italy. Without bothering to respond, Jamie takes it and steps into the line for aliens while Giovanni proudly heads off to the line for nationals. This feels odd, because he is the alien, isn’t he? It doesn’t occur to her until they meet up on the other side again that no, in fact it is she, the frequent flyer who’s never traveled outside the States except to Mexico that one time, who is the alien now. The americana.
Jack, for his part, is no longer Jack but Giovanni. Jamie must keep reminding herself, as it says so on his passport, and now in his demeanor as well. If he’s not at ease in the hapless, chaotic disorder of his native land then he’s certainly resigned to it, methodical in his step, knowing exactly what to do and where to go.
Jamie drank too much prosecco on the plane. Is it just her, or are the people here smaller? She actually asks him this in an attempt at humor, for he seems nervous and it’s making her nervous. Why is she nervous? She’s never had problems meeting the proverbial mother before. Sure, there’s going to be a language barrier, but no doubt there’s already going to be a language barrier, the one inherent in the relations between any mother and the woman her son brings home, and these thoughts aren’t helping Jamie stay calm. By the time she follows Jack out the sliding custom doors, her heart is beating wildly.
A blinding moment, her first in Italy, one in which there are flashing bulbs and wild applause, stylish crowds and sleek architecture. They are in Milan, after all, fashion capital of the world; but the world that then comes to life is in the form of a dreary terminal stinking of burnt coffee and toasted cheese. No crowds, just a few clusters of young Italians wandering around in dark leather and piercings, aimless and self absorbed. They make Jack’s mother easy to spot—no, Giovanni’s mother—though Giovanni seems to be, for the moment, pretending it is not his mother, this tear-stricken woman leaning so anxiously against the low gate that Jamie fears it might toppled over.
She is pretty, Jamie notices right off, despite the wrinkles and the roundness. Heirlooms cling to her neck and fingers; her skin is golden, her hair a pearlish-gray. Her light features are a northern quality, Jack had informed Jamie with pride on the plane. When Jamie had inquired about his own features––a darker bronze––he’d responded with some foreboding, “My father’s from the South.”
Cheeks are kissed over and over.
“Mamma, ma dai, mamma,” in a tone part revel, part pity, Giovanni at last extracts himself from La Mamma’s embrace and motions for Jamie, who steps in. “La mia fidanzata,” he says.
Jamie, with a “Ciao” stuck in her throat says, “Hello,” idiotically.
La Mamma glances at Jack as if for translation, then leans in for those kisses Jamie finds so awkward––which side comes first, how many, exactly. By the time La Mamma steps back to examine this tall ginger woman from head to toe, toe to head, Jamie is blushing in all directions. Some conclusion is made, seemingly, because at once La Mamma takes Jack’s arm and the two walk rapidly on, she in her rubber shoes and thick stockings, Jamie trailing in new sandals that keep slipping off her feet.
At one point they turn and ask if she would like to prendere un caffé at the airport bar. “I would love to,” is her gracious response, hidden beneath a caffeine-desperate smile. And they weren’t kidding about the “prendere” (to take), because that’s essentially what drinking coffee is here. Jack pays at the register, hands his ticket to the barista, and one minute later three tiny cups are sliding along the counter at them. Jack “takes” his, loads sugar into it, and drinks it in one gulp. “Ancora?” La Mamma says, also done.
Jamie looks at her thimbleful, thinking, this will not be enough caffeine.
“Sta male?” La Mamma asks. Is something wrong with her? Yes, there will be, when Jamie soon discovers that there is no lingering or dawdling over coffee in this country.
They move on through the terminal that seems both empty and yet chaotic at the same time. The few present are crowded with their overflowing luggage carts at the elevator bank because one of the lifts is broken, while others seem lost. Jack leads them on a search for the stairs that have gone mysteriously missing. Circling back to the lifts just in time for the doors to magically slide open, they shove on. The ride down is slow and harrowing, what with Jamie’s mind still ruminating on Jack’s fidanzata reference. It sounds perilously close to fiancé, and an alarm has sounded in her head. She and Jack are in no way engaged. In fact, they have been together only two months and she has yet to call them a couple, let alone act like they are headed down some path of commitment.
He had overwhelmed her, certainly. Jamie hadn’t expected to fall in love so definitively, to love someone so completely as to make even the word love sound ridiculous, and utterly redundant. The only hope now is to keep reminding herself that this is not the first time she’s fallen in love. She’d been overwhelmed those other times, too, hadn’t she? Love does not give him claim to her soul, after all, and anyway, she has a Partnership to achieve at the firm, money to accumulate, goals and milestones to reach.
Dai, muoversi. (Come on, move.)
It is a tiny Fiat Panda in which Jamie sits squeezed in back with the luggage that won’t fit in the trunk. “Che cosa fai mamma?” he says after his mother, who has jumped from the car because she forgot to pay the parking ticket.
“Fidanzata?” Jamie leans in and whispers in his ear.
“Girlfriend,” he responds, pensively looking out for his mother.
“In Italian it means girlfriend.”
“I heard you the first time.” She sits back, unsatisfied. Girlfriend doesn’t sound right either, but she is too tired to think or talk rationally. The morning haze is like a drug. She is asleep before they exit the parking structure.
A convulsive verbal exchange floats into Jamie’s subconscious, intermixed with loud, abrupt silences. The Alps soar past the Fiat window in a gray, misty blur, however faintly. She is awake now, and they are practically hydroplaning on the Autostrada toward Torino, a straight shot of dreary farmland, factories, and lime green gas stations. At A26 they turn off and head toward Alessandria, where the land is at first flat and wet, then jade and undulating. The fog begins to lift, a pink sun overtakes the sky, and the hills grow wavier, a richer green. Clusters of terra cotta emerge on distant hills along with castles and campanili that don’t seem entirely real, until they get closer, and then they still don’t seem real.
La Morra, Barolo, Verduno, Cherasco, Roddi, Grinzane… Signs point crooked arrows in all directions. “Barolo, like the wine?”
“I’d said it was orange,” she muses.
“Whatever. You fed it to the lamb. I remember that.”
He smiles somewhat deliciously at her in the rearview.
“Che cosa?” La Mamma wants to know what they are saying to each other.
He’d been braising a lamb shank one night, Jamie thinks back. A few hours in the oven and counting, her entire apartment radiating in its tender, juicy fumes, suddenly Jack grabbed his keys and rushed out the front door. “Now this is a wine,” he said twenty minutes later upon his return with a bottle of Barolo. “Moncrespi,” she said, reading the label.
“Mon-crrrrrrresss-pi!” he’d corrected with a vehemence that startled her. She’d asked him if the embellishment was necessary. It’s not embellishment, he’d said, it’s correct pronunciation, and yes, it’s necessary. She’d handed him the bottle opener without further comment, for she’d already had a flogging that day by her client and needed a drink. He opened the bottle while she got out glasses, but instead of pouring her a glass, he’d opened the blazing oven and poured the lamb a glass before setting the bottle aside and insisting she wait for the wine to open up. She studied him, then the wine-soaked lamb, considering a martini. When Jamie wanted something, she often wanted it now; but this man had a way of making her wait, and if he could wait she could wait. An hour later, the lamb done, she’d taken her first real sip, making a conscious effort to understand what she was drinking. She was thirty-two. Maybe it was time.
“It’s dry,” she’d said.
“Look at the color.”
“Amber,” he’d said, gazing into the glass with eyes just as brown, just as amber. It was a haunting look, the one he had turned and given her, the same look exuding from him now, she imagines, as he speeds intently into the distance before him. That look sends her stomach into turmoil, or perhaps it’s the road, which has grown narrower and windier. She rolls down the window. The air smells of earth and tar, the sun has gone missing again, and grape vines are everywhere, clinging to the hillsides sweeping up and down all around them. Uninspiring yet pleasant farmhouses and villas are sprinkled among those hills, and Jack is announcing their names, friends or foes, the Crespi Vineyard one of them, as in Mon-crrrrrrresss-pi! There don’t seem to be any visible markings or signs, no elaborate Napa Valley-styled entrances. Their families go way back, Jack is telling her now, as if she’d understood what he and his mother had been saying. Whose families?
The light dims suddenly; the road levels off with a vibration so jarring Jamie braces her breasts with her forearm as their car bounces over the cobblestones, and Jack is pointing out something seemingly critical. She looks up and around for a castle or a campanile—instead it’s a newspaper kiosk where he buys his Gazzetta Dello Sport. This is the main town, he explains, a curved incline of shops tucked inside stone where the sun apparently can’t reach. Only a few locals in coats trudge up the road. Otherwise the place feels barren, cold even though it is June, the beginning of the warm season.
“Bar,” she says unconsciously at a lonely shop sign, thinking about a pre-dinner cocktail, but then remembering the airport. Not that kind of bar.
They are winding again, ascending. The road is narrowing farther, as if that were possible, and is generously lined with trees and hedges. Jack pulls over to let a car coming from the opposite direction pass. A few more turns and they are confronted by an iron gate with a rusted Villa Ruffoli emblem dangling off the front. Jack gets out of the car to straighten the emblem and type in the code, then hops back in, grips the steering wheel and mumbles in Italian while the gate swings too slowly open.
Jamie can’t help thinking back to how little she knows Jack, or Giovanni, or whatever his name is, and this place he calls home. Back in San Francisco, outside of their time together, their lives remain distinct and separate. They don’t probe into each other’s pasts or origins and make it a point not to cross paths at work. He is a senior engineer at L-3, and she is a consultant for Norwest Aerospace, which is in the process of acquiring L-3. Jamie is in charge of the financial integration of the two entities, and although the merging of the engineering operations, which includes Jack’s group, is her peer’s responsibility, her relationship with Jack is still a serious no-no.
She’s not sure how she let it happen. They’d met at a bar where both firms were celebrating the project kickoff, a get-to-know-each-other kind of event. She’d spotted him the same moment he’d spotted her, in what became an other-worldly sensation, as if some foreign, intoxicating gas had filled the air. That’s what it was, she’d had to stop and check herself, a purely chemical sensation. It had attacked all organs save her mind, which was still intact apparently, because she could read right through his unreadable expression; the frown that wasn’t a frown at all, but a smile, one that seemed, if she wasn’t mistaken, to be meant only for her. He was tall, the supple leather of his jacket seamless with the skin on his neck and face, as if his features had been carved from some rare, precious stone.
Walk away. The rejection will hurt. (In her experience with handsome men, they tended to stay clear of light freckles and red hair.) Anyway, none of this mattered, because it was against firm policy to date a client, and Jamie was a play-by-the-rules gal; but after a couple of drinks, lo and behold, there she was letting her arm brush softly against his, accidentally. When they finally did get a conversation going he didn’t laugh at her sarcasm; he could only stare at her with an odd sort of wonder as she nervously rambled on. Her belligerent American co-workers thought him snobbish and aloof, but she didn’t know what to think of him. He was quiet and intense, had no trace of an accent, and it didn’t occur to her that he was a foreigner. Not until a week later, that is, when he’d invited people over to his apartment for the European Champions League game. Jamie was the only guest without an H-1 visa or second language; not to mention that her passport had only one stamp on it. She’d sat and watched, but didn’t understand the game’s nuances. The wild adrenaline rush of everyone standing up after sixty-five minutes and screaming, “Gooooaaaaallllll!!” at one p.m. on a workday, had been a complete and utter revelation.
Theirs is an unspoken agreement, she reminds herself now, as Jack…Giovanni squeezes the car through the narrow roadway, to lay no claims upon each other. And anyway, apparently there’s no longer anything to claim, as he had explained to Jamie on the plane, though he never did elaborate on the bankruptcy, and his manner in that moment had been so intense that Jamie isn’t sure she ever wants him to. All he could say was that Villa Ruffoli is not in any way what it once was, and that is the reason why he has not, in the decade since, returned to the place he once called home.